NZ Brick Database

 

 
       
     
   

EARLY BRICKMAKING IN NEW ZEALAND

From Simon Best (1995) in Felgate, M. (ed). 1995. His Majesties Theatre.

The first bricks in the new colony were of necessity imported. Australian brickworks had been operating since 1788 (Gemmell 1986:20), and the first recorded shipment across the Tasman was in 1806, part of a small prefab house (Eaves 1990:6).

The first home made bricks appear to be the 8,000 fired at the Kerikeri Mission in 1819, by a Maori who had learned the trade in Sydney (Lee 1983:92). By early 1834 50,000 had been made at the nearby Waimate Mission (Lee 1983:152), and it is probable that by this time small quantities of bricks were being made for specific use at various locations throughout the country.

By the late 1830s a brick kiln was operating in the hills behind Russell, producing low quality bricks with a rectangular frog mark. Examples of these have been found in the 1840/41 pise at Pompallier, and in the remnants of a chimney excavated at the Hung house site on the Russell beach front (Best 1995:18,19).

The first recorded attempt to make bricks in Auckland was in 1840, probably in the last 3 months of the year, on the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets (George n.d.407). These were soldiers from the 80th regiment, under Major Bunbury, and the bricks were probably destined for chimneys at Fort Britomart. At that stage of the settlement this spot was accessible only by a track through the scrub from the main part of town, which then clustered around the beach head at the junctions of Queen, Fort and Shortland Streets.

It is almost certain however that other small scale attempts were being made at this time in Auckland. Structures such as wells and chimneys would have needed from the start, and the newspapers of 1841 contain many advertisements for bricks, of which the following is a typical example

Henry Cretnay begs to inform the Public that he will be enabled, in about a fortnight from this date, to supply them with GOOD BRICKS at a reasonable price, and delivered to any part of Auckland.
Fort Street, September 1 1841 (NZHAG 1841b).

The 2 weeks delay is common to all such notices, and while it could refer to an expected shipment across the Tasman, it is more likely to be the time allowed to build, fire and dismantle a clamp kiln. One advertisement, on 2 October 1841, makes it clear that local production is involved:

BRICKMAKERS WANTED
The Advertiser to find clay and firewood only. Hard, well-burnt brick counted out from the kiln, will be paid for at the rate of Two Pounds per thousand. Apply to
Mr Peter Williams
at his New Store (NZHAG 1841c).

This notice also suggests that the kiln involved is a clamp, since the brickmakers have no say on where the operation will be carried out, and are unlikely to have built a permanent kiln for the contract.

For the first few years most if not all of the bricks made in the Auckland area were probably clamp-fired, with journeymen brickmakers working for entrepreneurs such as the above, Brown and Campbell (NZHAG 1841d), and Israel Joseph (NZHAG 1841a). The locations of these may well have initially been restricted to on or close to the shore; in 1843 Matthew Laurie (who later moved to Karangahape Road and then to the Whau) was announcing his entry into the market, and promising to "...land Superior Bricks in any Bay..." (DSC 1843).

Squatting licenses were granted for short term activities around Auckland, at such places as Mahurangi, the slopes of Mt Eden, and Freeman's Bay and Soldier's Bay on the Waitemata frontage. Among the professions listed in the July 1844 return are 2 brickmakers at Soldiers Bay (1 A1:1844/1635, National Archives).

These first attempts would have used clamp kilns, located wherever there was a suitable exposure of clay. In this kiln type the bricks to be fired form the kiln itself. Clay preparation probably involved the use of a primitive horse operated pugmill; a barrel shaped container with a central vertical shaft and radial knives which functioned like a large mincer. Prior to the invention or use of this machine in Europe and Britain the clay was prepared by treading, either by human or animal, and as late as 1860 in Britain at some small country industries "...the neading and tempering of the clay is still performed by the naked feet of the labourers...(Tomlinson 1860:25).

No reference to brick making practices in Auckland and Northland before about the mid 1840s has been found, and it is possible that some of the very early attempts to produce bricks here used this process; certainly it is recorded that as late as 1862 R.O. Clarke pugged his first field tile clay using a horse and bull to tread the clay in a shallow pit (Scott 1979:98/9).

The prepared brick clay would have been hand thrown into a mould, first either wetted or dusted with sand. If the mould had a raised design on the base then the typical frogged brick would have been produced, featuring mainly a slot of varying dimensions but also including diamonds, hearts, Ts etc. It is possible however that the very early bricks in Auckland, produced by itinerant brickworkers, were in fact plain; Gemmell suggests that frogs did not become common on Australian bricks until the 1850s (Gemmel 1986:53, but see reference above to 1830s Russell bricks).

By 1843 permanent kilns may have made their appearance. Henry Falwasser, advertising bricks for sale on 23 March of that year, and congratulating "...the public of Auckland on the decline of the vile practice of building Town Houses with wood," mentions his brick-walk and kiln, suggesting a permanent structure (AT 1843).

The first mention of a what is clearly a permanent kiln is that of Alexander Allerdice, who in 1847 was advertising "newly burned bricks" from his kiln in Freeman's Bay, and who was "...confident that the quality of the present kiln will ensure a constant and steady demand" (NZ 1847b).

Brickmaking in the central area eventually came into conflict with its inhabitants. One 1847 kiln, John Walker's Auckland Brick and Tile Works, operated somewhere between Federal street and the intersection of Swanson and Albert Streets, only a couple of blocks from the His Majesty's site. A letter to the editor of the New Zealander complained of it burning day and night, "...emitting flames and sparks of fire. " (NZ 1847a). It is not known whether this was a clamp or Scotch kiln; Eaves states that it had a chimney (1990:38) however there is no reference to this.

By the late 1840s/early 1850s brickmaking activities in the settlement were concentrated mainly in the next watershed west and along the main southern ridge: Freeman's Bay, Ponsonby and Karangahape Road. In 1855/6 the first brickworks on the Whau opened, that of Dr Pollen, and in the 1860s a number of other yards started in the same area. In c. 1862 R.O. Clarke started the first brickworks in the Hobsonville area.

Simple hand operated presses or pugmills would have been the first improvement, and an 1845 auction notice for Brown and Campbell, featuring timber and ironmongery, lists "2 brick machines" (DSC 1845). The next development was probably the wire cut process, where a bar of clay was extruded from the pugmill through a die and cut into brick sizes by a wire frame. While this could be achieved by a simple modification to a primitive barrel pugmill, the advent of steam power in the brickworks resulted in very large and sophisticated pieces of machinery, both for the preparation of the clay and in the wire cutting process. The final major innovation was the steam driven brick press, producing a more regular and often denser brick.

In the mid 1860s, at 2 of the largest central area brickworks, new technology was operating alongside old. At George Boyd's works in Newton, machinery was both horse driven and hand powered, and the bricks produced were a mix of hand moulded, wire cut and pressed; Boyd's machine producing 350 bricks per hour (AWN 1865b).

It is also possible that Boyd was firing different types of kilns at that time, as a kiln of hand made bricks was seen by the reporter, and the comment made that "Out of a large kiln of hand-made, only about one half are sound and useful' (AWN 1865b). This is more likely to be a result of the unevenness of a clamp firing rather than any fault of the forming process.

At that time John Leckie had just established the Caledonian Brickworks at Cox's Creek, Great North Road, and all stages of the process were steam powered. The brickmaking machine was a William Ralston's Patent, turning out 2,500 pressed bricks per hour, and the whole set up was reckoned to "...astonish the natives" (AWN 1865a).

As will be clear from the above, no simple step-by-step progression from basic to complex methods of brick production occurred in early Auckland. While the first attempts involved simple (probably treading) clay preparation and clamp kilns, with by the end of the century steam powered machinery and very large and permanent kilns, at any one time within this period different methods of producing the cities building blocks would have co-existed.

   
 
 
 
   

© Simon H. Bickler (2007)